UK universities 'less optimistic' about finances, survey finds

Despite uncertainty, institutions remain willing to invest to compete globally

March 13, 2017
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Nearly two-thirds of universities are increasingly worried about their financial situation, with Brexit and pension liabilities featuring heavily in their concerns, a report has warned.

In a survey of 39 finance directors from both research and teaching-focused universities, 62 per cent of respondents said they were less optimistic about their financial position than a year ago, up from 28 per cent when the survey was conducted 12 months previously. Over the same period, those optimistic about their situation fell from 22 per cent to 5 per cent.

Pensions were high on the list of worries for universities, with more than nine in 10 expecting their liabilities to increase over the next 12 months and nearly half predicting a substantial increase. Brexit, potential reductions in overseas students as a result of the UK government’s immigration policies, and the fluctuations in the regulatory environment caused by the Higher Education and Research Bill and the teaching excellence framework were also cited as reasons for the increased financial uncertainty at institutions.

Concerns were also raised about universities’ ability to access credit with which to invest. More than half believed that their demand for credit would increase in the next year but, while almost 60 per cent of research-focused universities stated that they could access low-cost credit, only a quarter of teaching universities said that they could, suggesting that financing options for these institutions were more limited.

Despite these external concerns, however, the report showed that universities were still intending to invest considerably. Sixty-two per cent said they were planning to increase capital expenditure. Additionally, almost 70 per cent of respondents said the outcome of the European Union referendum had not altered their current investment plans.

According to the fourth annual Higher Education Finance Directors’ Survey from business advisory firm Deloitte, the increased domestic and international competition for academic staff and students has created a “sense of dynamism in the sector”, whereby universities “must invest to compete and thrive”. Brexit will “intensify global competition for students”, one respondent noted, and institutions “must invest to stay ahead” of international competitors.

“Universities are grappling with a shifting regulatory and political environment, rising costs, new technology and increased competition,” said Julie Mercer, global head of education at Deloitte. “This is driving them to invest in their offering to students and academics as a route to succeeding in a lively global and domestic market.”

The report stated that investment to attract international students and improve student experience was a high priority, with some 82 per cent of universities identifying estates and physical assets as strong priorities, with 51 per cent highlighting technology and systems.

International postgraduate students were the main target for universities in terms of boosting student numbers, with 86 per cent stating they would like to increase this intake. More than three-quarters are keen to increase international undergraduates, while eight in 10 will invest in UK postgraduate recruitment. Domestic undergraduate recruitment was an investment priority for just under 50 per cent of institutions. However, the report warned that delivering on this growth would be made harder by the fact that recent Ucas figures showed an overall 5 per cent decline in applications to UK universities.

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